Camille Helminski: challenging patriarchal language and imagery

Camille Adams Helminski, an American convert to Islam, is the writer of several books on the history of women in Sufism and the translator of several volumes of Sufi literature into English. Her rendition of the Qur’an, The Light of Dawn: Daily Readings from the Holy Qur’an, is a partial translation, which contains 365 selected verses for daily meditation. There are various feminist elements in Helminskis translation, which are visible in the book cover, the preface, and the translated text. The key element in the cover is the dominant white colour, a symbol of purity, peace, and innocence in Islam. This colour is also believed to be the colour of angels and the beautiful women of Paradise, which could suggest a reference to women and femininity.

In the preface, Helminski devotes a major section to discussing the issue of Muslim women’s position in Islam by emphasizing the feminine elements embedded in the Qur’anic message. She writes that:

As the Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam proclaims over and over again at the commencement of each chapter or surah, Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem ... in the Name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Most Merciful . . . this message is coming to us from the compassionate womb of Creation. The root to the words Rahman and Raheem is the word for womb.

(2000, x)

Helminski’s reference to the expression ‘Rahman’ and ‘Raheem’ is very significant, as these particular expressions have come to represent the gender egalitarian message of the Qur’an. As the translator explains, these terms are derived from the Arabic root ‘Rhm’ meaning the womb, a body part specific to women. Moreover, a number of Muslim scholars, particularly Islamic feminists, are using the origins, the meaning, and the presence of these expressions in every chapter, to argue that gender equality is a central message of the Qur’an. Further in the preface, when discussing the supporting texts, she used in her translation, Helminski reveals that she relied on different sources including previous translations of the Qur’an by two popular translators, namely Yusuf All'* and Muhammad Asad. She does not, however, mention any specific classical Islamic religious sources such as the Sunnah or Tafsir.

In her approach to the source text, Helminski chose not to intervene freely and to remain as close as possible to the original. She, however, focused on challenging patriarchal language and imagery by avoiding male-oriented language and by using gender-inclusive nouns and pronouns. For instance, in the following examples, in comparison to translations by Saheeh International (Umm Muhammad) (1) and Taheerah Saffarzadeh (2), Helminski (3) consistently avoids exclusionary terms and opts for the gender-inclusive terms “humankind” instead of “man,” and “parent” and “child” instead of “father” and “son

  • (1) 0 mankind, worship your Lord, who created you and those before you, that you become righteous (Saheeh International 1995,4).
  • (3) O Humankind'

Worship your Sustainer, who has created you (Helminski 2000,2).

(2) 1 swear by this [Makkah] City

And you are native of this city

And the Father and the Son*

Verily, We created man [Adam] in

The space [somewhere between the sky and the earth]

Does man think that Allah the One [the Ahad] has no power over him? (Saffarzadeh 2006,1164).

(3) 1 call to witness this land

In which you are free to dwell

And the bond between parent and child

Truly, we have created the human being to labor and struggle (Helminski 2000, 196).

In addition to disrupting patriarchal language, Helminski shows a clear sensitivity to women’s visibility by adjusting the translated text. For instance, she replaces the masculine word “Lord” by “Sustainer.” Although the Arabic text uses masculine generic nouns and pronouns, Helminski uses the combination “he/she” as well as the generic “he” to refer to human beings and to God. To make explicit to the reader that Allah is beyond gender or genderless, Helminski introduces a new pronoun Hu borrowed from Arabic and given a new gender-neutral meaning in English, as is demonstrated in the following example:

Such is God, your Sustainer: there is no god but Hu.

the Creator of everything: then worship Him/Her alone —

for it is He/She who has everything in His/Her care.

No vision can encompass Him/Her,

but He/She encompasses all human vision (2000,27).

Helminskis use of the pronoun Hu and the combination of the Arabic “Huwa” [he] and “Hiya” [she] to refer to God can be viewed as an inventive and a significant feminist strategy, which highlights the role of language in creating gender hierarchies. Her strategy also mirrors the fact that the idea of God as male is being criticized by many feminist theologians, who argue that the masculine conception of God has been created by and in the language of a male patriarchy, which has, in turn, contributed to the marginalization and subordination of women. Moreover, Helminski’s use of the pronoun Hu shares similarities with Mary Orovan and Marge Piercys and many other feminists’ attempts to replace the generic “he” by alternative inclusive pronouns. Similar techniques are employed in Bible translations, as Judith Plaskow points out: in order to re-establish an egalitarian image of God, many feminists have adopted an aggressive program for replacing masculine pronouns for God with gender-neutral or even explicitly feminine forms. God is now referred to as “She,”“She/He,”“S/He,” or by alternating “He” and “She” in different paragraphs (Plaskow 1990, 141—142). Finally, Helminski’s approach demonstrates that it is possible to use feminist strategies in the sacred text without transforming or rewriting its content. Her translation is, however, incomplete and does not deal with all the content of the Qur’anic text, especially specific gender-related verses.7

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